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tv   Abraham Lincolns Ethics  CSPAN  March 30, 2016 11:20pm-12:11am EDT

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good qualities and some of the other qualities. >> like all of us. >> she died on the cusp of her 96th birthday. i knew she was senile when she was 95 because she started treating me right. i think what you're saying about the different parts of mary lincoln's personality is very much on target. >> no question. i got off easy. thanks. [ applause ] the media teaches us that the democrats and republicans are supposed to be at odds with each other, and i think that people need to recognize that we need to be respectful towards each other and we need to recognize that senators are respectful towards each other and that will be more conducive to getting more policy done. >> the truth is these people, these people that we see on
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television, on c-span, are real people. when we saw president obama, perhaps the thing that most stood out to me is he had bags under his eyes. he's a real person dealing with real things. >> sunday night on q&a type high school students from around the country talk with us about their experiences in the week long government and leadership program, plus their plans for the future. the students met with members of the executive, judicial, and legislative branchs of the government, plus military and media representatives. >> "washington post" journalist mr. jonathan capehart came to talk to us, and i really loved the insight he gave us of kind of being the outside source reporting back to us and the electorate about what's going on in our government. >> ruth bader ginsburg is the most inspirational people we have met this week.
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i want to be in the legal profession or possible a senator. >> i understand the need for bipartisanship at times, but i think it is important that politics go to washington with a goal. >> we need to get back to having a constructi ivive discourse. we need to get back to respecting all people despite their backgrounds. >> sunday night at 8:00 eastern on c-span's "q&a." more now from the abraham lincoln symposium. up next, remarks from author and professor thomas carson. his book is "lincoln's ethics." >> good afternoon. my name is michael burlingame. i teach history at the
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university of illinois springfield, and i bring you greetings from the holy land. when i saw this set, i was startled when i came into the theater because i saw the title of the show that's being done tonight is "110 in the shade," a and i assumed it was a musical about washington, d.c. in august. it is my pleasure to introduce thomas l. carson. he's a graduate of saint olaf college and of brown university. professor carson's teaching and research focus on ethics as the titles of his books suggest. the status of morality, value and the good life, and lying and deception. professor carson has a lifelong interest in history which led him to write his most recent book "lincoln's ethics."
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i had the privilege of reading it in manuscript, and i commend it to your attention. i must admit i was a bit skeptical when informed that a philosopher, not a historian or a political scientist, was writing about lincoln, for i have long shared the view expressed by henry adams who said that philosophers offer, quote, unintel libl answers to insolvable problems. i ensure you that lincoln's ethics offers highly intelligble answers. please join me in welcoming tom carson. [ applause ] >> thank you, michael. i'm very pleased and honored to speak to you here today.
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i want to thank everyone who's here. thanks for coming, and thanks especially to some of my very old and dear friends who are here. i should mention there is a handout. i hope everyone has a copy of it. they're up toward the front on the sides. you can follow the talk along with the handout. you'll need the handout near the end of the talk. my talk is based on the second half of my book, "lincoln's ethics," which discusses lincoln's character, but first i'll summarize the first half of the book which addresses moral questions about some of linco lincoln's most controversial actions and policies. i discussed a number of cases where many thought he acted immor immorally, including the following. lincoln was not an abolitionist until 1864 when he ran for election. he never publicly exposed the
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state's black exclusion laws. he publicly endorsed other unjust laws that were part of illinois's black codes, including laws preventing blacks to vote, serve on juries, or marry whites. when he ran for the senate in 1858 and ran for president in 1860, he opposed any further extension of slavery, but did not advocate its immediate abolition. in his first inaugural addressed he promised to enforce the fugitive slave law. the emancipation proclamation was seemingly half hearted.
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it didn't free states in the border states or most of the territory occupied by the union army when it went into effect. president lincoln imprisoned thousands of people without due process of law. he supported the colonization of african-americans outside of the united states. given the abolition of slavery was not a union war aim in april of 1861, there are reasons to question whether the union was morally justified in fighting the american civil war at the beginning of the war. it is also debatable where the union just means to fight the war. lincoln bears considerable personal responsibility for the conduct of the war and the union army's treatment of confederate
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civilians. i defend lincoln's actions in most of the cases. most of his actions were justified on utilitarian grounds. they were necessary to bring about the best consequences in the long run. i also argue that in practice lincoln was utilitarian, but my defense of lincoln does not predispose the truth of utilitarianism. some of the actions that lincoln should have performe eperformed need to be utilitarians to reject these criticisms of lincoln. let's turn now to lincoln's character. abraham lincoln is generally regarded as a singularly good and virtuous human being. he walked many miles from his store to return a few pennies to
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someone who had been overcharged. he was an exceptionally kind person who was moved by compassion and justice. lincoln was a resolute and determined commander and chief despite his great awareness and compassion for the immense suffering caused by the american civil war. the mythical abraham lincoln was a wonderful human being. does he deserve his reputation as a morally good person? my book addresses this question at great length. today, i'll give you the short of it. lincoln possessed many important moral virtues, some such as k d kindness, but many people deny he was an unusually good human being. the most damning criticism is the charge which a he was a racist. my conclusion is that the lincoln myth is accurate for the most part.
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cynics would be surprised and confounded by how much truth there is in the myth. the myth understates his goodness and virtue, so lebron bennett to the contrary, lincoln is a moral exemplar. lincoln was an unusually kind and tender hearted person. he was deeply moved and distressed by human and animal suffering. his kindness was the foundation of his opposition to slavery. this trait was very pronounced from his childhood and was observed by many people on many occasions. lincoln was epxceptionally kind to animals. as a boy, he once preached a youthful sermon defending the life of ants. lincoln once took pains to
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rescue two little birds who had been blown from their nest in a storm. lincoln said he placed the birds in the nest provided to them by their mother and that he could not have slept in he had not given those two little birds to their mother. lincoln was equally kind and benevolent to his fellow human beings. when he lived in indiana, he would visit and comfort sick children. he was deeply moved and distressed by slaves on his trip to the south as a young man. many years later, in a letter, his close friend, a man who owned slaves and defended the institution of slavery, lincoln wrote the sight of shackled slaves was a continual torment to me. as a young man, lincoln enjoyed
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mocking and ridiculing his political opponents. once on the political stump, he reduced a democratic politician to tears. an anonymous letter he wrote led the editor of the state of illinois to challenge him to a duel. during the last part of his life, after he re-entered politics, he was an exceptionally kind person without qualification. lincoln's second salient moral virtue was magnanimity. m lincoln possessed the virtue of magnanimity to an extraordinary degree. his magnanimity was almost superhuman. he didn't hold grudges against
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others, even when he was insulted and treated very badly. lincoln and ed stanton were both lawyers on a legal case. stanton treated lincoln very badly. he refused to talk to him or allow him to take an active role in the trial. stanton was openly contemptuous of lincoln. stanton walked away muttering to another companion, why did you bring that damned long-armed ape here. when he had to find a successor to his secretary of war, lincoln consulted george harding who he had met at the reaper trial. he said, i know that you could not and would not appoint him after the outrageous way he has
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insulted you and behaved towards you. lincoln replied, mr. harding, this is not a personal matter. i desire to do what's best for the country. stanton did an excellent job as secretary of war. the second example of that is of line and trumable. lincoln ran for the u.s. senate. in one of his rivals, lineman and trumable were opposed to the kansas-nebraska act and any extension of slavery into the new states. lincoln received 45 of the 51 votes to win the election. together, he and lincoln cont l controlled almost enough votes to win the election. this time senators were elected by state legislatures, not directly elected by the voters. in subsequent ballots, some
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people refused to support lincoln because lincoln was a whig. when it appeared a candidate who supported the kansas-nebraska act would be elected, lincoln voted for trumble. trumble was elected to the senate. mary lincoln was very bitter about this. afterwards she was never again on speaking terms with trumble's wife who had been her close intimate friend. he became an important republican senator and later helped engineer lincoln's run for president. magnanimity is an important virtue and a very, very important virtue for any leader. had lincoln not been magnanim s
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magnanimous, he would have been greatly distracted by the numerous slights and slanders which assailed him and he would not have succeeded in the difficult task of his presidency. some underappreciated features are his nonconformity, skepticism, and openness to criticism. he questioned and rejected many of the conventional values of his own time and place. he was an extremely unconventional person. i'm going to read you a quote from william lee miller. miller writes in an atmosphere soaked with hostility to indians, lincoln resisted it. in a time and place in which a great mass of common men supported andrew jackson, lincoln supported henry clay. lincoln became a whig. lincoln rejected that prejudice in a southern-flavored setting
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soft on slavery. lincoln was generous to blacks. lincoln cared about education intensely. when evangelical christianity permeated the western frontier, lincoln raised questions and gave different answers than his neighbors. lincoln was very skeptical about the common prejudices of his own time and place, including the prevailing very strong racial prejudices against african-americans. when he alluded to those prejudices, he said that they might or might not be well founded. he never explicitly endorsed the view that whites were morally and intellectually superior to blacks. here's one notable instance of this. lincoln was initially reluctant to permit black soldiers to serve in the union army. in part he was motivated by his
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well-founded worries about the prejudices of white soldiers and the general public. he also worried that blacks might not make good soldiers. lincoln went out of his way to acknowledge their valor and crucial role in the union war effort. as president, lincoln subjected his views to criticism. he appointed strong and abled people to his cabinet and sought their frank criticisms of his ideas. he listened to and learned from the abolitionists. he listened to and learned from the criticisms of abolitionists. some abolitionists made bigoted comments about lincoln's family background. henry wade lincoln's attitudes about slavery could have only come from someone born of poor
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white trash. lincoln's education was most unfortunate for his moral development. lincoln's capacity for self-criticism came to be appreciated by many of his abolitionist critics. wendell phillips described lincoln as a growing man who views changed and might well change again. shortly before his death, the abolitionist lydia wrote, i think we have reason to thank god for abraham lincoln. with all his deficiencies, it must be admitted that he's grown continuously. frederick douglass noted lincoln's willingness to listen to criticism and said that lincoln was, quote, patient under reproaches. linco lincoln's openness to criticism was close to his magnanimity. miller aptly describes lincoln as someone who had strong moral
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convictions and gave strong arguments about the morality of slavery without being moralistic and self-righteous. he seldom condemned other people. although he condemned the institution of slavery in the strongest terms, he call ee eed did not condemn southerners. he did not hate or abstain the sinners. since so many people who have strong moral convictions are self-righteous and betray hostility in condemning others, lincoln's concern was morally virtuous. i'll briefly mention a few other virtues that lincoln possessed. first is what i call his honorable ambition.
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ambition is a vice in many people. he wanted to gain the esteem of others by rendering himself worthy of their esteem. in his first written political statement, lincoln wrote every man is said to have his own pe could lar ambition, i can say for one that i have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed by my fellow men by rendering myself worthy of that esteem. lincoln was also an extremely temperate and controlled person. he abstained from alcohol and tobacco. he was faithful to his wife. he was exceptionally self-controlled in his expressions of anger. despite the vicious criticisms
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he received and the blunders of his generals, president lincoln kept his anger out of important decisions and policies. he also tritely controlled his anger with his wife who frequently tried his patience. so now i'm going to turn to criticisms of lincoln's character. despite lincoln's many virtues, there are grounds for questioning the goodness of his character and a status his a moral exemplar. some think lincoln entered into a loveless marriage to further his political ambitions. he is criticized for neglecting his family by spending too much time away from home, for being cold and ungrateful to friends, and for his relationship to his parents. the most serious criticism of lincoln is the claim that he was a racist. my book discusses all these
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criticisms in great detail, but today i'll only talk about the issue of racism. was lincoln a racist? it depends on our definition and the times we are talking about. i'll present you with six different definitions of racism. given three of these definitions, being a racist is grave moral failing. lincoln was very clearly never a racist in that sense of the term in which being a racist is a grave moral failing. he was much for his political career a racist according to two of the other definitions, but when he died, it's unclear to me at least that he was a racist according to any of these six definitions. and i'm going to read you the first three definitions. here you will need to follow on your handout. i'm going to refer to these definitions by number. one, racicism is the belief that certain races of people are
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inferior to others and it is permissible for members of superior races to enslave members of inferior races. racicism is ill will towards members of a certain race of people. three, racism is racially motivated indifference to the welfare of members of a certain race of people. being a racist according to any of these three definitions is a serious moral failing, but very clearly lincoln was never a racist according to any of these three definitions. he never thought that anyone was justified in exploiting or enslaving members of certain races, and he was never hostile or indifferent to the welfare of blacks or members of other races. a fourth definition is as follows. racism is the belief that certain races are morally or
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intellectually superior to other races. it's unclear whether or not lincoln was a racist in this sense. nowhere in any of his writings or speeches does he say that whites are inherently or morally or intellectually superior to blacks but nowhere does he explicitly deny this either. but lincoln clearly endorsed unjust racial discrimination during most if not all of his political career. he defended unjust laws that denied free african-americans full social and political rights. his most well-known statement about this came in his debate with douglas in charleston, illinois. lincoln said, quote, i am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about any way the social or political equality of the white or black races.
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i have never been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes or of qualifying them to employ office or to intermarry with white people. while they do remain together, there must be the position of the superior and inferior and i, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. i think in this statement lincoln was pandering to the deep racist views of illinois's voters. definitions of five and six are as follows. five, to be a racist is to be disrespectful of a certain race of people on account of their race. six, to be a racist is to be inadequately concerned with the
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welfare of a certain race of people on account of their race. lincoln was a racist in both of these senses during most of his political career. so let's start with definition five. being disrespectful of a certain race of people. lincoln sometimes used the very disrespectful racial slur words nigger, s nigger, sambo, and cuffy. in his debates with douglas, he said he agreed with douglas in being horrified at the thought of interracial marriage. lincoln said, and i quote, judge douglas is especially horrified at the thought of the mixing of the blood of the white and black races. agreed for once. 1,000 times agreed. presumably, lincoln was purportedly speaking for himself and all white people when he said, quote, there's a natural disgust in the minds of nearly
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all white people to the idea of an indiscrimination of the amal goe mags of the white and black races. his strongly express eed aversi to interracial marriage might have been insincere. according to law, lincoln replied saying the law means nothing. i shall never marry a negress but i have no objection to another man doing so. [ laughter ] >> this partly confirms my view that some of lincoln's offensive statements about african-americans pander to the prejudices of voters. the sixth definition of racism
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is that racism is inadequate concern for the welfare of a certain race of people. lincoln strongly favored the interest of whites over blacks. the racial discrimination that he endorsed from the passage from the charleston debate is evidence of this. lincoln said if there was a necessary conflict between the white man and the negro, i should be for the white man as much as judge douglas. but then lincoln added, but i say there is no such necessary conflict. there is room enough for all to be free. so lincoln was a racist according to definitions five and six during most of his political career, but we need to make important qualifications. in certain respects, lincoln had a very great concern for the welfare of blacks. he was concerned for their happiness, freedom, and the
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right to enjoy the fruits of their behaviobehavior. lincoln's racial attitudes changed during his presidency and by the end of his life, it is no longer clear that he was a racist according to either definition five or six. he came to greatly respect the sacrifices and valor of black soldiers who fought for the union. he also came to greatly respect and admire a number of well-educated black leaders that he met during the end of the war. at the end of his life, lincoln cared greatly about the welfare of african-americans, and in several important respects, he did not favor the interest of whites over those of blacks. despite intense public criticism based on concern for their very great suffering of union prisoners of war, lincoln halted
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the exchange of prisoners with the confederates until they reluctantly agreed to exchange black prisons of war in january 1865. the lincoln administration's willingness to halt prisoner exchanges to protect black p.o.w.s was denounced by "the new york times" and walt whitman. lincoln's firm insistence that the emancipation proclamation be upheld and that slavery be completely abolished as a condition for ending the civil war were policies that attached very great weight to the freedom and welfare of black people. it is likely that he could have ended the war earlier if he had been willing to allow slavery to continue. it is very likely these policies cost the lives of many thousands of soldiers, the great majority of whom were white. at the end of his life, lincoln wants blacks to be citizens of
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the united states and wanted to give voting rights to some, but not all black men. in the last speech he ever gave, he said, quote, he preferred for now that black men who fought in the war and those that were very intelligent be permitted to vote. most scholars think by well educated he meant educated or literate. it was a policy that enraged john wilksbooth because he heard the speech. immediately after listening to lincoln's speech, booth told a friend, quote, that means nigger citizenship. that's the last speech he will ever make. but this policy in question still involved unjust racial s
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discrimination. lincoln wanted uneducated white men to be able to vote. we might take this as racism, but i think at this time it was right for lincoln to be cautious, to move slowly, and not push for the radical change of giving full rights to all blacks. had he done so, he would have risked ratification of the 13th amendment. even if we grant this, we could ask would lincoln have done enough to protect the rights and interests of african-americans if he'd lived longer and had overseen reconstruction. would lincoln have supported anything like the 14th and 15th amendments to the u.s. constituti constitution? the answer is we simply don't know. thus what we say about his racism and his treatment of black people needs to be hedged in light of this uncertainty. here, i think we need to
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distinguish sharply between our judgments about the justice and wisdom of his policies and what we think they reveal about his character. the policies in question were motivated by lincoln's caution and his understanding of the constitution, an understanding according to which the states, not the federal government, had the ability to determine voting rights and not the rights of other citizens. even on the at least charitable interpretation, lincoln's racism was too mixed with very virtuous benevolence to detract greatly from the goodness of his other virtues. let me try to wrap things up. the mythical lincoln presented to many american school children is without flaw. at least his flaws were never mentioned. he had serious flaws, but in
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many ways the lincoln myth under states his goodness because it doesn't adequately address the difficulties he faced. some historians think racial prejudice was stronger in central and southern illinois and indiana where he lived for most of his life than any other region in the united states. the lincoln myth doesn't give the details of the intense stress of his life and his crushing workload as president. the stress lincoln suffered was aggravated by the disloyalty of general mcclellan, the death of
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willy lincoln, and what i think was a very unhappy marriage. mary lincoln never recovered from her grief over her son willy's death in 1862. in july 1863, she suffered a serious head injury as a result of a carriage accident. that made her prone to severe headaches and aggravated her bad temper. she became an embarrassment to her husband. the point is lincoln achieved the things he did under extraordinarily difficult and stressful circumstances, and the stress and difficult marked his face. i'd ask you to turn to the last page of the handout. i have some before and after pictures here. i think they're striking. first photograph was taken august 1860 when he's a candidate for president. the second was taken on february 1864. the photographs were taken less than five years apart, and we
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can see the burdens of his office written on his face. as a young man, lincoln had many rough edges and faults to overcome. an important part of the story of his life is his capacity for self-improvement. he evolved from being a partisan politics who mocked and personally attacked his opponents in speeches to become a great statesman who was fair and respectful to his opponents. he also became an abolitionist in supporting the 13th amendment and he continually adopted more and more enlightened views and policies regarding african-americans and their place in the american society. so i submit that the real abraham lincoln was at least as good as the mythical lincoln. more complex, more interesting, and more human as well. lincoln was a morally exemplary
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human being. in most respects, he is worthy of imitation. and he is fully worthy of his very honored place in our national memory. in my conclusion, i follow web dubois. dubois calls lincoln a great and good man. dubois writes i love him not because he was perfect, but because he was not in triumph. the world is full of folk whose taste was educated in the gutter. to them, i love to say see this man. he was one of you, yet he became abraham lincoln. i personally revere him the more because up out of his contradictions and inconsisten y inconsistencies he fought his way to the pinnacles of earth
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and the fight was within as well as without. the scars and foibles and contradictions of the great do not diminish, but enhance the meaning of their upward struggle. it was true history and antisee dents that proved lincoln a prince of men. thank you. [ applause ] >> i think we have time for questions, right? >> tom, you mentioned that lincoln never stated that white people were superior to blacks, that he was agnostic on that subject. >> i think that's the best interpretation. although we have the private statement by wells of a private meeting with him. >> but he does say explicitly
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that black people are inferior to white people in one regard, namely color. >> right. >> what do you make of that? do you think he was being satirical? what's a superior color? what's an inferior color? >> i think that's basically b.s. to pander to the voters. passagu probably remember it better than i do. appearancebout the of african-americans, the appearance of whites is superior to blacks, something like that. meaningless a statement. he said, "they may not be inferior to whites in terms of intellect or morale of the.
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-- or morality. in terms offailure their color and their right to earn the bread that equality."m >> his courtroom technique, where he would concede something to the other side, which i always felt in the old days before computers, if a student turned in a particularly bad paper, you had to have some thing positive to say. this paper is very neatly typed. lincoln was doing that. to ber thing that needs pointed out about the 1815 campaign, lincoln began in july of 1915 eight giving a speech in chicago hard on the heels of a
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speech douglas gave the day before. conclusion, lincoln said let's stop all this quibbling about this race being superior and let's it -- and let's unite behind the declaration of independence. [applause] forget that he consistently advocated that blacks would not have the same political and civil rights as whites. i don't think there is anything getting around that. >> he never repeat that because reckless hammers him again and again. how can you vote for somebody to be u.s. editor when he doesn't
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believe there is such a thing as a superior and inferior race. douglas emphasizes that statement over and over again. another thing he emphasizes is are includedople in the declaration of independence's statement that all people are created equal. he said, absolutely not. white andans all european men, and lincoln emphatically denied that. >> i'm curious what people think of the statement in the speech from april 11, 1865. the speech that gets him killed. it seems to me he is still advocating unjust racial discrimination there. no idea that uneducated whites or whites who had served in the war should be denied the right to vote.
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>> that is an important point. and -- >> [inaudible] >> as was pointed out this douglas when frederick gave his speech in 1865, where he said he heard lincoln call he limited black support, was so disappointed because it was so limited. that is an important speech because as it was pointed out this morning, douglas said lincoln learned his statesmanship in the school of rail splitting. you take a mall, a big hammer,
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and drive home the thick and of the wedge. we should have known what lincoln was doing was inserting a thin and -- inserting the thin end of the wedge. >> i think there is a bit of speculation. he would havet done had he lived longer? i don't think that is quite as clear. i think to some extent we have we say about this we have to hedge with some degree of uncertainty. it is quite possible or likely he would have done so. >> i am puzzled still and concerned that even now people seem to take a light -- take to light that-- take to lincoln was a racist.
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why does that attitude persists? >> i think there is some evidence for that statement in things i've said here. i think in some sense he was a racist. >> [inaudible] it seems to me we have to parse the word racism carefully. in some important senses, hugh clearly was never a racist -- he clearly was never a racist. somethingracist mean morally bad he was never a racist. evidence, clearly he is endorsing unjust racial discrimination for most of his political career. i think the mistake a lot people
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make, or the popular consciousness, that he is clearly endorsing unjust institution. we have to understand his times. towasn't in a position change them and it would have been political suicide to say otherwise. so the judgments about his character that people conclude from that are very erroneous. say he is an exemplary person, a morally exemplary person. >> back to this lady's question .nd a point i will make you had a situation in 1865 where relatively few african-american men voted in the north, and you had a situation that continues to serve as occupying soldiers in the south, protecting voting rights for newly freed slaves.
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that was one aspect. secondly, what has not been discussed today is the of unions activism veterans, black and white, decades after the war. in the most important discussion of whether or not lincoln was a racist is to take a look at what the men who clearly affected lincoln's votes during the civil war or his own soldiers and what happened after the war or for decades afterwards, where the only institutions that refused to accept the color line was the largest union soldiers organization and the importance of that. i think there are several points to be made of the hypocrisy of the north, the ongoing lack of opportunity, and the things that
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have to be remediated. >> is that the grand army of the this is critical because it is the only national organization. >> another thought or two here. lincoln's primary concern was with slavery, opposing slavery, opposing the threat of slavery. we think in terms of civil rights, questions of equal social or political rights. these weren't questions that lincoln spent a lot of time thinking about. moving in a direction toward that.
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but he didn't live long enough to finish his work, and we really don't know what he would have done. >> legal work for the grand army was done in the great uncle's law office. equality andcated votes for the blacks. think it is misleading to use the term racist in respect to lincoln. >> the disparaging comments about people of mixed race being horrified at the thought of interracial marriage, use of racial slur terms, i think that is evidence of disrespect. it is even possible that the disrespect was


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